For the two staff attorneys at the Milton R. Abrahams Legal Clinic housed within the Creighton University School of Law, their new positions are a homecoming of sorts. Both Katelyn Cherney and Chris Mihalo received their undergraduate degrees in English from Creighton University in 2008. Cherney joined the legal clinic as a staff attorney in July and Mihalo joined in January. Cherney earned her JD from the University of Michigan in and Mihalo earned his JD from Seattle University.
Prior to coming to Creighton, Cherney worked at Legal Aid of Nebraska and Mihalo worked at Domina Law Group in Omaha.
“A Dream Job”
“It’s a dream job,” says Cherney, who was excited to return to the Creighton community. Third-year law students are eligible to gain real-world experience by working 10 to 13 hours per week in the clinic. Through the clinical program, students also earn four credit hours and learn essential lawyering skills, such as counseling, drafting pleadings and business documents, interviewing, negotiating settlements and becoming well-versed in oral arguments and trial preparation. Students participating in the clinical program are authorized to practice law by the Nebraska Supreme Court under the supervision of veteran attorney and clinic director Catherine Mahern, associate professor and holder of the Connie Kearney Endowed Chair in Clinical Legal Education. Cherney and Mihalo participate in co-supervision of the students with Mahern.
“They are practicing under our licenses under our supervision,” Mihalo explains. “In addition to supervising the students’ cases, Chris and I also keep an independent caseload to maximize the number of clients the clinic serves,” Cherney adds. The legal clinic is a general civil practice that primarily focuses on issues affecting low-income individuals, including family law, landlord/tenant, and wills, trusts and estates. The clinic’s focus areas are domestic violence and housing law, but it will accept novel cases if they are deemed a good learning opportunity for students. Low-income Douglas County residents are eligible for legal services. Applications are taken over the phone only. “When we get in every Monday, we typically have a stack of 12 or so potential applicants who called in over the weekend,” Cherney says. “The need is greater than our capacity to accept all clients.”
A Hidden Gem
“We put students to work right away,” Mihalo says. “Typically, the first kind of cases students work on are no-contest divorces. These cases are typically easier because students have the opportunity to get in front of a judge, introduce themselves, call witnesses and ask questions of the witnesses. Most students have never been before a judge before, and it’s important to get them confidence as quickly as possible.”
“Students often work together as a team, but from day one, we give them their caseload,” Cherney says. “Chris and I take on more complex cases than the students with the goal of enhancing our own lawyering skills and becoming more experienced practitioners and teachers.”
“We get students accustomed to explaining their decisionmaking and transferring their book knowledge out into the real world,” Mihalo says. “We will coach them step by step as they develop their individual cases, but we don’t feed them answers. It’s rare to have a supervisor after law school who would have time to coach them, so this is why we take this approach.”
Mihalo also says that he and Cherney work with students not just on developing their cases, but on administrative aspects important to the law as well.
“Most students will be in private practice and so it’s important they know the skill of record-keeping, as well as knowing how to properly transfer memos and using a timer to record your tasks for billing purposes,” he explains.
As students typically work on cases an average of four to five months, they are often inheriting cases from students who came before them. Students have their cases for the duration of the semester. The average civil case in Nebraska’s district courts can take 12-18 months.
“Since the fall of 2016, the American Bar Association requires one or more experiential courses totaling six credit hours,” Cherney says. “The clinic is the only experiential opportunity that guarantees live-client experience for students and that’s why I truly believe working here is the best-kept secret of Creighton’s law school.” “More and more attorneys are seeking JDs with actual lawyering experience and this is a great way to get that while still in law school. The clinic is a real hidden gem,” Cherney says.